Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To Blow up the king and the parliament.
I think that the world may be ending.
The stench of smoke and sulphur creeps in through the windows and fills my room. Flames light up the night sky. All night, the monotonous pounding of explosives beat a maddening rhythm in my ears. The whirr of the Bristol Police Helicopter passing overhead gives that added Marlon Brando touch. I love the smell of Catherine Wheels in the morning.
There certainly is an apocalyptic atmosphere over Merry England right now. Half the country is flooded. The news reports show people boarding up their houses and piling sand bags in the doorways; rather like that first reel in the movie where society is breaking down just before the triffids arrive. I myself have seen puddles in the high street, and some water got in through my window, dampening the rug and slightly waterstaining my Ikea Acrobat wall units. Yesterday my umbrella turned inside out.
The present catastrophe is very good value. The only thing that we English enjoy more than complaining about the weather is complaining about the government; and this time it seems as if the weather is actually the government's fault. Prince Charles says that the rain is God's judgement on motorists. Everyone agrees that it has something to do with petrol fumes, or fridges, or something. Tony wasn't personally in charge at the time when global warming was invented, but he could have resisted a lot harder, and he didn't make any moves to re-nationalise the weather when he came to office. So it's his fault. I've already started constructing my ark.
Meanwhile, the government's done one of those big reports, and they've admitted that the Mad Cow thing is completely out of control and everybody in the whole country is going to die horribly from BSE within the next 10 years. Not that I care. At the age of 35, one doesn't need an epidemic of brain-softening lurgy to make you aware of the imminence of your own death. It has already started to figure in all your calculations. I realised at my last birthday that I'd just reached the half way point in my life, hadn't achieved anything amazing yet, and signed up for some art classes. When I think back to the canteen culture of the 80s, we were all so reckless and naive, burning our youth away on burgers and sausages. This one really is the government's fault: Tony himself personally fed the brains of cows with bubonic plague to unprotected homosexual chickens, so it's he's only got himself to blame when all the voters drop down dead before the next election. Prince Charles says that BSE is God's judgement on the farmers. If I and my generation are to be wiped out prematurely it will be to us as syphilis was to Ibsen and TB to the romantics, it will free us from worrying about the future and let us live life with relish. Tomato relish and fries.
As if all that wasn't enough, the truckers are promising to bring the country to a standstill again next week, people are food hoarding and petrol hoarding and the government is going to impose martial law and send thousands of SAS men in balaclavas to shoot all the truckers. Populist Mr Blair, Mr Blair who sold socialism down the river of fire that failed to ignite because it wasn't what the people wanted, Mr Blair who talks about the people's this and the people's that may end up being hung upside down from a lamp-post by a populist mob who want nothing more out of life than cheap petrol. You kill off the unions and get brought down by a general strike of truckers. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this litre of unleaded.
Not that the fuel protesters aren't right-wing twits, of course, but they the People's Twits; exactly the sort of Genie that you'd expect Blair to let out of the bottle. They are the end result of that dangerous way of thinking which says that the job of government is to do what the People want. Politicians are actually beginning to say that it's a bad thing that judges can pass verdicts that the People don't like: that if the People want to murder burglars and lynch paediatricians, then the People should be allowed to do so. So it naturally follows that if you don't like having to pay tax on petrol, then you should be able to tell the government to bring the price down. I don't blame Blair for this particular petard, but it amuses me that he's being hoisted on it. He didn't start the fire, he only fanned the flames.
Flood, storm, pestilence, civil insurrection, two goods trains being de-railed outside Bristol. I'm not feeling too well myself.
And on top of everything else, it's bloody bonfire night.
In the English autumn, history coincides with nature to create a strange, anarchic paganism. Christianity doesn't have any way of marking the Autumn equinox. There's a half-hearted ceremony called Harvest Festival in which school children take tins of groceries to old people's homes, but even that doesn't go back further than Jane Austen's time, and God features in it only incidentally. But something in our heads or our hearts or our tummies tells us that November is death-time, and a whole set of death-parties bubble up to mark it.
It was in November that a bungling terrorist failed to assassinate king James the first, or second, or Charles, or someone: in the past, anyway, with barrels of gunpowder. It was also in November that Edmund Blackadder and those poets we did at school got killed in the trenches, which we called Armistice, the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, Nineteen Eleven.
So on Saturday the children burn Guy Fawkes in effigy, remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot; and on the Sunday the grown-ups mark two minutes silence and blow last post, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them. We shall remember them.
And this manages to co-incide, more or less, with the day when the Ancient Britons (a Good Thing) used to honour the souls of their dead heroes, which got taken up by the Catholic Church (a Bad Thing) and called "All Saints Day", which has something to do with All Hallows Eve which became Halloween. So we remember all the saints who from their labours rest and the dead of two world wars and the gunpowder plotters on roughly the same day, and mark it by making pumpkin lanterns and dressing up as ghosts.
It all comes back to fire and death
The Sun, helpfully, pointed out that if people started hoarding large amounts of petrol in preparation for a fuel shortage and at the same time start piling up fireworks in the garden to commemorate Guy Fawkes, then there could be one hell of a big bang.
Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun. Our garden wasn't big enough to have an adequate bonfire to burn Guy Fawkes we just let off our own fireworks in our own back garden. A couple of boxes of small coloured tubes and cones, some of them, thrillingly, with Chinese writing on them: and for a week before, almost every night, taking them out of the box and reading the names not realising that a "Violet Chrysanthemum" and a "Shower of Sparkles" would be the same: a brief blue or green flare; some sparks, a hiss, and period of smouldering and the smell of dead matches, during which Dad would say repeatedly don't go near it yet, it may still go off in your face, before some one kicked it over and the ritual was repeated. We usually ended up putting an embargo on two or three big ones, saving them for the end, and then taking it in turns to chose, letting one off at a time: Daddy in his old boots and big checked overcoat and scarf; and the light in the kitchen going on and off as we looked for new matches and torches and try to read the instructions on the box; and baked potatoes and bacon and egg rolls, and clearing the dead fireworks and the overturned milk bottle from the garden the next morning. Daddy said he threw dead fireworks on a small practical functional bonfire outside the garage weeks later when he was burning some leaves and papers, and they sparked slightly as they burned, and I couldn't help but wonder: what colour are fireworks in broad daylight.
Walking home from work yesterday, two separate sets of children threw, lighted fireworks at me. My friend actually phoned the police at one point: stepping out of her front door was like putting your head above the parapet. As good away as any of marking Remembrance Sunday, I suppose. We live in a country which has banned the sport of target shooting on the off-chance that some maniac might get hold of a gun and shoot some children, and yet we happily have a month where every sweet-shop and newsagent in the land sells boxes of explosive devices with which those same children can blow up themselves and as many members of the general public as they can take with them. Kids get maimed and blinded every year. And this in a month when normally sane adults, primary school teachers and Blue Peter presenters are telling little Johnny that it's quite all right for him to commit whatever vandalism he feels like, it's an ancient English tradition going right back to 1987 and it must be all right because it was mentioned in the Harry Potter books. We don't have a tradition of 'trick or treat' in this country; the kids don't know the rules. They've only heard about it from American TV and irresponsible confectionery manufacturers who've spotted that they can make a fast buck selling cheap plastic devils horns to kids who are quite diabolical enough already. On my street, there were two houses splattered with eggs, one that had been spray painted and one wheely bin that looked suspiciously as if it had been set on fire. Halloween and fireworks night on the same week; someone really planned that well.
After National Incendiary Week, we have three months of carol singing to look forward to.
Last month. Late October. Saturday. Nine o'clock in the evening. I've cut down an alley by the station in on the way back from the Thai take-away. There's fairly good street lighting, and it's only two minutes from my front door, but it's a little deserted. There is shouting and speech behind me. I think I look round. The memory is indistinct. I walk on. My Thai-take-out is getting cold. There is sudden pain in my left-shoulder blade. Gravity becomes confused. I find myself sucked onto the tarmac by four hands on my shoulders. Someone kicks me again. I fall on my left side: the primary thing I remember is the stinging nettles. I'm looking quite clearly into the face of a dark-skinned teenager. I don't remember feeling either panicked or frightened. The possibility that I am going to die vaguely crosses my mind, but only in the sense that it would be rather embarrassing if I did. I always feel the need to apologise when I get ill. My main concern is that I seem to be getting mud on my new light-coloured anorak. I burble that I don't have any money, which isn't true, because I always take out a hundred quid at the beginning of the week. More than anything I behave like the condemned man in Camus, trying not to inconvenience them or look stupid. One of them goes for my wallet, the other for my watch, which will net them a fiver, the finest that Woolworths could sell. I feel relieved. They are only robbing me. They are going to run away when they have finished. They are not drug crazed psychopaths beating me up for fun. That's all right, then. I mutter "leave my glasses, leave my glasses" as a result of which they take my glasses. One of them kicks me in the back a couple more times for good measure before running off: I think in order to disorientate me just enough so I can't run after them.
I did not, as I was required to write in the police statement, give them permission to rob me.
Not, on the whole, a very sensible way to have walked home, although as the police officer said "Start to think like that Sir and you don't have right of way on your own street and then the villains have won."
Initially, I did the Freudian thing of pretending that it hadn't happened. It was about ten days before I told any non-essential personnel about the event, whereupon I went into shock retrospectively. You can see why victims want to torture and kill their attackers; some belief that "getting their own back" might counter-balance and block out the nasty experience. It honestly crossed my mind that if I could get a new pair of glasses and a hundred quid from the insurance people then I could simply un-do the event, edit it out of my mind forever, like when you lose something precious and don't tell anyone you've lost it so you can pretend you've still got it. It turned out that I hadn't bothered to insure myself for loss or theft outside of the home.
The worst part was the stream of threatening letters I got from the victim support agency, telling me that I ought to be feeling traumatised and depressed and they could come and help me if I wasn't. One of the letters included a leaflet beginning "What is violence?"
It never particularly occurred to me that I live in a "bad" area -- my old flat was in a street which overlooked the "City Centre Sauna" and "Club XXX" and nothing untoward ever happened there, unless you count the fellow-resident who stole my undies from the washing machine. My new one is on a pleasant residential street, maybe a bit on the shabby side. I bought this flat because it's within walking distance of the coach station, work, the Boston Tea Party, the gym. I suppose I could have bought something smaller and more expensive at the other end of town, although I guess you are just as likely to be mugged on posh suburban back streets. Anyway, I like this end of town. There's a hippy health food shop which I never go in, but it's nice to think that's it there if I ever wanted it; there's a new coffee bar on the corner, two little corner shops and one of those shops which sells screwdrivers, pot plants and Christmas tree lights. There's a fairly nice cafe which I stopped going in after they lost my order even though I was the only person in the shop. Three weeks ago I would have said it had "a nice sense of community." But now I'm painfully aware of what a nasty walk home I have to do: I keep noticing stretches where the street lamps don't work; empty building sites; boarded up shops; a small dark park; a couple of alleys between houses. All prime sites for people to jump out from. I was pretty horrified when they first started putting George Orwell cameras in the shopping centre, now I wonder why they don't put them everywhere. (One camera would make the alley perfectly safe to walk down, one assumes.) . I could learn to drive, but I'm the sort of person who hovers at kerbs for three minutes before crossing the road, and still manages to step out in front of at least three moving vehicles a week.
Had my attacker been a white man with say a tattoo or a piercing, I would currently be jumping every time I saw a tattoo or piercing. At any rate, I hope I would. It's easy to use words like "racism" and "political correctness" but they turn out not to mean anything. I've heard that there are areas of Bristol where "racist muggings" occur: white kids rob black people and black kids rob white people. I don't know if that was what happened in my case. I wouldn't remotely dream of saying "Well, of course, all people with dark coloured skins are natural criminals" or "It's the fault of Labour immigration policy, send 'em back where they came from" or "Of course, it's not their fault, their culture doesn't respect property in the way that ours does." But I still find I've acquired a phobic fear of Asians, or at any rate, of groups of young Asian males. It's not a nice feeling. Only the terminally stupid allow phobias to develop into racist theories. Me, I'm just saying overly-cheery good mornings to every neighbour with vaguely dark skin, in case they think I'm being rude when I look at them in a funny way and think "Was that him, is he going to do it again?"
Otherwise, my liberal credentials seem to be mostly intact. I don't want to bring back the birch, the stocks or transportation. For the first five minutes I would very much liked the offenders to have experienced the future in terms of a boot stamping on a human face, my boot and their face, respectively, but after a nice cup of tea, my most violent fantasy involved the police dragging the three youths round to my front door and making them say sorry, or possibly making them re-paint my bedroom as a penance.
But somehow, somehow, the world seems a tiny bit more hostile than it did two months ago; and I'm a tiny bit less tolerant of fireworks, trick-or-treat and carol-singers than I was last autumn.
I think I'm going to buy an umbrella.